For this article in the titans of training series, we’re going to look at the gigantic big back builders that are; the lat pulldown vs the pull up. They're two of the biggest lat and upper back exercises in existence, so it's a pretty big task. the question is; which is better?

Pull Up Points

Person doing pull ups

We'll start with the pull-up. From a generalised point of view, we're talking about a standard, wide grip pull up on a bar with no assistance or added weight, so it’s just you and the bar. We're also assuming your form is great too!

Compound Exercise

One of the most significant arguments in favour of the pull up vs the lat pulldown is that it's an incredibly effective compound exercise. It puts your upper body strength to the test and is a real feat of strength in general. No muscle can be undertrained for you to be able to pull it off properly and with good form, and even more so for you to be able to do a full set!

It means that you have to use more than just your back as well. You need to really utilise your lats more than anything else of course, but your biceps, traps, pecs, delts, you name it, they’re all involved and working together to lift you above that bar and safely back down again. It's a true challenge and a huge upper body exercise.

Bodyweight Exercise

Another key advantage that the pull-up has vs the lat pulldown is that the movement is far more natural. Using the weight that the pulldown offers is much more restricted, and much less functional.

The training and strength that it offers are much more practical too, with real situational uses and transferable strength across your entire body rather than just your lats. This does mean though that you can’t start light or increase the weight, you just get rep changes or adjustments.

(Here's a guide on building up to a pull up in case you need it)

Lat Pull Down Points

Exercise Example

The lat pulldown is not one to be forgotten so easily though, as it clearly still has its advantages for it to still be so popular among gym-goers everywhere, especially vs the pull up.

Isolation exercise

The first point to look at would be the isolation aspects that come with it. The machinery and mechanics that are involved with the lat pulldown mean that it's easily possible for you to switch up your exercises so that you are hitting different areas of your lats for different results. The easiest way to do this is to switch up your grip as well as the equipment you’re using such as a V bar in comparison to a standard wide bar. There are no limits.

The ability to do this also means that you can change things up and really put the focus solely on your back rather than anywhere else like the pull up does, so that if your back is an area of weakness for you, you may find this is the best way for you to progress efficiently. Even if it's the strongest area of your body, other muscles could still let you down in a pull up. This is where lat pulldowns come into their own.

Added Control

Because you aren't using balance and stability muscles in your workout too, the exercise is far more controllable. You can tailor it to your needs and take from it whatever you need. You can do varied sets like drop sets or supersets in order to change things up from time to time, or even just perform the exercise slowly so that you can concentrate in the contraction you’re seeing in your back and make sure that your form is absolutely perfect. It's up to you.

Finally, this exercise is a lot safer than pullups too. It's easy to get a pull-up wrong or even to damage muscles or fall from failure with a pullup, but the lat pulldown means that you are safe and less likely to have a bad technique. Even if you do, it is very easy to correct on a machine. That's worth more than most people think.

Lat Pulldown vs Pullups: The winner

Both of the exercises are great for your back, and particularly your lats; that goes without saying. Overall though, the pull up is a better exercise in terms of muscle activation, real strength building, and a better range of motion and muscles used. It uses most of your upper body to give you a great all-round exercise, whilst still having variable factors to enable you to train however you need to.

The pulldown is still a great exercise with a lot of variation too, but it isn't on the same level. The pulldown is still worth doing, especially to build up to a pull-up, or to really overload your back afterwards too, but it just isn't on the same level as the pull-up.

 

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